Oil and Water
There were stumbling blocks. At Hess, the problem wasn't Linux itself, but whether or not some of the third-party applications based on proprietary software that it had been using could be made to work with the new open-source operating system. Forsyth, who has been with Hess for 18 years, says Hess' seismic processing software originally was written by a software vendor to run on VAX systems in the mid-1980s. But as Hess went through several hardware iterations—from VAX to an IBM mainframe, and then to a succession of Unix machines, including the IBM supercomputer—this became problematic, and so Hess began writing as much of its own seismic applications as possible to open standards like Unix.
Still, some off-the-shelf applications were sticking points. Early in Hess' switchover to Linux, for example, Hess had to nudge Scientific Computer Associates (SCA) to reprogram its parallelization software, Linda, for the new operating system. Linda enables all the machines in the grid to work together, but it didn't work very well on Linux at first. "We were debugging their [Linda] code as well as ours," recalls Gary Donathan, geoscience systems consultant for Hess, who writes the algorithms used to assemble the depth migrations. Along with the debugging came hardware glitches with the new PCs in the Linux cluster. "We were finding hardware problems, like network cards that weren't reliable, and trying to check out Linda," Donathan says. "Sometimes it would be tough to figure out if it was a hardware or Linda problem." Morton remembers asking SCA for a Linux version of Linda. "They told me in two weeks they'd have a copy for me. It was literally fresh off the keyboard."
Another challenge: Hess uses a suite of GeoQuest software from Schlumberger Information Solutions to help its engineers understand potential oil reservoirs and how they might be drilled. Schlumberger has been slow to bring out a test version of the GeoQuest software on Linux. Right now, it runs on Sun Microsystems' Solaris OS. The software includes too many different programs and is used by too many engineers for Hess to develop its own version, according to Forsyth. "We asked Schlumberger two or three years ago to port to Linux, and we're still waiting," he says. Schlumberger spokeswoman Carolyn Turner says the company launched a beta version of GeoFrame, the primary component of the GeoQuest suite, at an oil and gas trade conference in May and plans to roll it out to clients this fall.
In the end, though, Hess' transition to Linux went smoothly. Eventually, Hess migrated to open-source parallelization software called MPI, another example of how open source allows more flexibility than proprietary software offered by vendors that have no particular incentive to offer their products on a free operating system. "We had run on enough different flavors of Unix that all our code was generic, so it wasn't hard to move to Linux," Donathan says. He has no regrets about the shift. "For the cost savings alone, it was worth doing." Besides, now he's got Linux running on his Pentium laptop so he can debug software at home. He couldn't do that with the supercomputer. "We're doing more with less," he says.
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